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You may be surprised to learn that cash is still king in Japan. At home, you may be used to carrying very little cash with you, if any at all. However, in Japan, you’ll likely use cash pretty much everywhere. As such, it’s definitely worth familiarizing yourself with the Japanese yen (JPY), the official currency of Japan.

Knowing how much your money is worth

The exchange rate between the U.S. dollar (USD) and JPY changes daily (as it does between all currencies).

Back in June 2015, travelers could get ¥125 for $1. In August 2016, it dropped as low as ¥100 for $1. More recently, in November 2019, it hovered around ¥109 for $1.

When standing in a souvenir shop trying to figure out how much an item will cost in your home currency, it can get annoying having to look up the exchange rate and then do some division to figure out how much a souvenir costs.

If you have a smartphone, download a currency conversion app. Just go to your phone’s app store, and search for “currency converter.” You’ll find several good options that’ll make traveling in Japan (or anywhere) easier.

If you’re converting JPY to USD, you can do some quick math for converting. Many travelers find it easy to just assume that ¥100 is about $1. Then you can look at a price tag in yen and drop the last two zeros (or move the decimal point two places to the left) and roughly get the USD equivalent. You may get a little more than ¥100 per dollar, but this gives you a ballpark estimate on the fly.

Making sense of the Japanese yen

If you’re anything like most Americans, you may drop change in donation jars at registers, throw coins in a cup holder in your car, or lose them in the couch. Some people hold onto coins and put them in a piggy bank, but there are definitely a significant number of people who find change more annoying than useful.

If you’re one of the many people who hate using change, you may have to rethink the way you look at coins when you’re in Japan. Americans are used to the $1 bill and $5 bill, while Europeans are used to the €5 bill, and Australians are used to the $5 bill. The equivalent in Japanese yen are coins. That’s right, the ¥100 and ¥500 are coins. This means that if you start casually throwing coins to the side as you’re used to doing, you may be throwing away a significant chunk of change!

It’s a good idea to somewhat familiarize yourself with the various coins. You may have a hard time distinguishing between the ¥5 and ¥50 coins, especially when digging through a coin purse looking for a specific one. The two coins are supposed to be different colors, but depending on how old and worn the coins are, they can sometimes start to look the same.

Thankfully, all but the ¥5 yen coin has its value written in roman characters on at least one of the sides. If you look at a coin and don’t see a number on either side, that’s the ¥5 coin!

The banknotes or “bills” are similar to what you’ll find in other countries. The ¥1,000 bill is roughly equivalent to the $10 bill in the United States, the ¥5,000 bill is the same as a $50 bill, and the ¥10,000 yen bill is equivalent to a $100 bill.

Interestingly enough, Japan does technically have a ¥2,000 bill, but it’s rare. In terms of value, it’s about the same as a $20 bill, but in terms of rarity, it’s more like a $2 bill. In the United States, many people have never seen a $2 bill, or they’ve only seen it once or twice. The same goes for the ¥2,000 yen bill in Japan. Some people have seen it, but only rarely.

If you choose to exchange money before your trip, you may end up receiving several ¥2,000 bills from your bank. Despite their rarity, they’re legal currency and they can be used almost everywhere. On occasion, you may find a vending machine or ticketing machine that has not been programmed to accept them, but even this is becoming less common.

Getting cash in Japan

In general, banks will likely provide some of the best exchange rates, and currency exchange shops found in airports and other popular tourist destinations will likely provide the worst.

You’ll need to decide if you want to exchange money before you leave home, after you arrive in Japan, or both.

Before your trip

It’s a good idea to stop by your local bank before your trip to exchange at least some money. Having Japanese yen in hand (okay, maybe not in your hand, but in one of your bags or something) will likely take some stress off when you first land. You won’t have to run around the airport trying to find a place where you can exchange money without getting a terrible exchange rate.

You don’t need to exchange enough money for your entire trip, but get enough cash to at least get you through the first day or two. This will allow you to get to your hotel and get settled before worrying about trying to find a place to get cash.

Your home bank will probably have to order Japanese yen — very few banks have it on hand. It will typically take about 24 to 48 hours to arrive, so if you want to exchange cash before your trip, you’ll definitely want to do this at least a couple of days before you depart.

While you’re at the bank, speak with them about possible fees that you could occur while traveling and see if they have any options that would allow you to avoid fees.

While in Japan

After you arrive in Japan, the best place to withdraw cash will be from ATMs, because that’s where you get the best exchange rate. However, not every ATM will accept cards that have been issued overseas. The best places for travelers to withdraw money will be at the ATMs found in post offices and 7-Eleven stores. In larger areas such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and similar cities, a post office or 7-Eleven always seems to be within a few minutes’ walk. Even in more rural areas, a post office or 7-Eleven likely won’t be super difficult to find.

The availability of ATMs within post offices vary depending on the office, but at the very minimum they’ll be available during the day, typically 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. However, ATMs at larger post offices may be available as long as 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Also note that the ATMs in post offices are unavailable on Sundays and holidays.

7-Eleven ATMs are typically available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year (with some exceptions). Visa cards are accepted 24 hours a day, but MasterCard is accepted only from 12:10 a.m. to 11:50 p.m. Other accepted credit cards, such as American Express and Discover, have similar limitations.

ATMs that accept international cards can also be found at other select convenience stores such as Family Mart and Lawsons and can also be found in airports and major department stores.

If you have the option, go to 7-Eleven ATMs when possible because they don’t charge an ATM fee. Post office ATMs and other ATMs that accept international cards may charge up to ¥216 ($1.98) per withdrawal.

On top of the ATM fee, many banks charge an additional fee for withdrawing money abroad. Sometimes it’s a flat rate, sometimes it’s a percentage of the amount withdrawn, and sometimes it’s both. For example, a bank may charge a $5 international ATM fee plus a foreign transaction fee equal to 3 percent of the transaction amount; those fees will show up on your bank statement every time you withdraw money in Japan.

Before your trip, talk to your home bank regarding what fees you may incur while in Japan. Many banks offer premium accounts or travel cards that don’t incur international fees (but have other stipulations). It’s worth talking to your bank to determine the best option for you.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Celeste Kiyoko Hall is dedicated to helping others learn about Japan and its culture. She served as a board member for the Midwestern Japan Student Association and as president of the Japanese Cultural Exchange Circle and continues helping others plan their trips to Japan through her travel website, Footsteps of a Dreamer.

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